A Lament for Liberal Protestantism

A Lament for Liberal Protestantism October 26, 2017

This review was previously published in Sociology of Religion, but since so few read journals, here it is on my blog, for your enjoyment. The task of resurrecting the liberal Protestant vision is getting more difficult, not less. I show why in this review of David Hollinger’s After Cloven Tongues of Fire: Protestant Liberalism in Modern American Historydownload-1

After Cloven Tongues of Fire is an ode to, a critique of, and lament for liberal Protestantism. It’s been awhile since I perused the latest historiography of a tradition that I studied early in my career. Hollinger’s devastating and entertaining assessment brought me up to date. He is the scholar for the task, a child of Protestantism, who lived and breathed it and then walked away from it. But he’s done so without bitterness or even any wistfulness toward it. Unlike what he calls the “Christian survivalists,” who seek to either resuscitate, or re-inflate the power of this tradition, Hollinger, like the precise intellectual historian he is, skillfully dissects the rise of the tradition, how it faltered, and the sputtering fuselage of was once the towering ideology that produced the early twentieth century social gospel, the mid-century fight against Nazism, and the dream of an egalitarian society.

As Hollinger shows so well, liberal Protestantism fabricated its own undoing. The creation of the social gospel mimicked and adapted the early progressive era critiques of the establishment, making social reform the benchmark of faithfulness, which also helped to produce a strong pacifist movement. Hollinger narrates the power of pacifism in the 1930s, which is precisely why Reinhold Niebuhr attacked it with such ferocity. Niebuhr won the argument with help of the Pearl Harbor attack, but Hollinger shows that is was no fait accompli. With a sense of irony, Hollinger announces, “Reinhold Niebuhr made war safe for American Protestants.” Hollinger is no fan of Niebuhr and rightly skewers him, showing how in the post World War II world few intellectuals outside the liberal theological community took Niebuhr seriously.

Niebuhr is the Trojan horse of theologians, yet once inside the American political establishment, instead of changing the insiders, Niebuhr became incidental. Yes, of course both George W. Bush and Barack Obama used Niebuhr’s Christian realism to make Americans feel good about trying to save the Middle East, but in both cases, these “missions” were either utter failures or wars with no exit.

Hollinger focuses on liberal Protestant history, but he understands the rise of American evangelicalism, and identifies it as a form of survivalism—forms of Christian faith that were attempts to save a religious ideology that has lost the argument, not only to the enlightenment but to American culture more generally. It is hard to argue with this in light of the fact that 81 percent of American evangelicals voted for Donald Trump—a candidate who proved himself a religious illiterate. The confusion on what it means to be a Protestant Christian is at an all time high. Liberal cultural despisers of Christianity are having the time of their lives.

Needless to say, Hollinger is not trying to save American Protestantism and his historicism is refreshing and sobering. But some of his best work is going back to the turn of the 19th century to engage with a spiritual survivalist, none other than William James. I wrote my undergraduate honors thesis on James, and I’m sure I saw in James, as Hollinger illumines, a 19th century intellectual wanting to create an rationale for taking religion, and Protestant Christianity in particular, seriously. Hollinger’s interrogation of James’s debate with the British agnostic W.K. Clifford shows that at first James rejected Clifford’s agnosticism, but toward the end of James’s career, like Clifford, James came to a position which Hollinger describes as “post-Protestant.”

And this short synopsis does not do justice to the richness of this collection of essays. The title, at first, put me off. But by the end of Hollinger’s essay on how he came into the profession, I was convinced that his title choice was equally superb. For Hollinger, the swing between provincialism and cosmopolitanism, which he adopted from the great China historian Joseph R. Levenson, is at the heart of all his work. The origins of this cosmopolitanism are not, for Hollinger, in the modernism of our era but in the very roots of the Christian tradition. As Hollinger notes, Galatians 3:28 and Acts 2:1-4, are both homages in the New Testament to a radical universalism in the early Christian tradition. And this more inclusive horizon translated into liberal Protestantism but as Hollinger shows it was quickly taken over by its secular and liberal competitors. In time, many no longer felt the need to be a Christian to be either a modernist or a cosmopolitan for that matter. Indeed, as Hollinger narrates, he took the secular cosmopolitan turn out the door of his rather provincial church. I don’t believe this is a necessary move for liberal Protestants but there is little doubt no one in our era is making a very convincing intellectual reason to stay.

Needless to say, this is a rich book of essays. Too often collected essays lack coherence—not so here. As a reader each essay opened up a new horizons of thought, but Hollinger’s own intellectual drive to narrate the twists and turns between the vernacular and the ecumenical traditions of Protestantism give the volume a propinquity that is powerful. This is a superb work of scholarship, a passionate intellectual argument without spite, and an invitation to think, which is the highest compliment one can pay to a scholar.

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